‘ The In­de­pen­dence hur­ri­cane’

More than 4,000 re­ported to have died off New­found­land in 1775


Alan Ruff­man, a Nova Sco­tia geo­sci­en­tist, has been watch­ing with in­ter­est re­cent sto­ries about the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of hur­ri­cane Igor on New­found­land’s east coast.

“In some re­spects, I sus­pect New­found­land has not had a hur­ri­cane or post trop­i­cal storm as se­ri­ous as Igor, since 1775,” Ruff­man said last week in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

The semi-re­tired geo­sci­en­tist still spends a lot of time do­ing re­search as hon­ourary re­search as­so­ci­ate with Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity’s Depart­ment of Earth Sci­ences and as pres­i­dent of Geo­ma­rine As­so­ci­ates.

In 1996, he wrote an ex­ten­sive ar­ti­cle for The North­ern Mariner on what was dubbed the “In­de­pen­dence Hur­ri­cane of 1775” be­cause it first struck North Carolina in the U.S. as open­ing ma­noeu­vres of the War of In­de­pen­dence were in progress.

Ruff­man said some news­pa­pers es­ti­mated that as many as 4,000 peo­ple died when the high winds and seas hit the Avalon Penin­sula, in­clud­ing sailors and fish­er­men who were jig­ging squid. The is­lands of St-Pierre-Miquelon also lost about 400 men at sea.

In his re­search, Ruff­man refers to the An­nual Reg­is­ter for 1775 that said the winds be­gan to rise on Sept. 11.

“At St. John’s, and other places, in New­found­land, there arose a tem­pest of a most par­tic­u­lar kind — the sea rose on a sud­den 30 feet; above 700 boats, with all the peo­ple be­long­ing thereto, were lost, as also 11 ships with most of their crews. Even on shore they se­verely felt its ef­fect, by the de­struc­tion of num­bers of peo­ple and, for some days af­ter, in draw­ing the nets ashore, they of­ten found twenty or thirty dead bod­ies in them; a most shock­ing spec­ta­cle! At Har­bour Grace, no fewer than three hun­dred boats were lost,” The An­nual Reg­is­ter re­ported.

Rev. Lewis Anspach, in his 1819 His­tory of the Is­land of New­found­land, also re­ferred to “a most ter­ri­ble gale of wind” that hit Har­bour Grace and Car­bon­ear, driv­ing all ves­sels in the har­bours from their an­chors and caus­ing in­hab­i­tants of the north shore to suf­fer with “still greater sever­ity.”

Anspach said up­wards of 200 fish­ing boats and their crews were lost.

Ruff­man, who has also done a lot of re­search on the 1929 tsunami in New­found­land, said there had been some con­fu­sion about the Septem­ber 1775 storm, which came to his at­ten­tion be­cause of work done by Michael Stave­ley of Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity’s geog­ra­phy depart­ment. He said Stave­ley looked at what was be­lieved to be a tsunami and was the first re­searcher to point out that it, in fact, was a very large storm, not a tsunami.

“And with that very large storm came a very large storm surge,” Ruff­man said. “That storm surge most cer­tainly over­whelmed Pla­cen­tia Bay in 1775.”

And, from re­cent news re­ports, Ruff­man said there seems to be some com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics be­tween the 1775 hur­ri­cane and Igor.

Ref­er­enc­ing Stave­ley’s re­search, Ruff­man quotes a dispatch by Rear Ad­mi­ral Robert Duff, Gover­nor of New­found­land, to the Earl of Dart­mouth in­form­ing him the fish­eries and trade in New­found­land “ re­ceived a very se­vere stroke from the vi­o­lence of a storm of wind.”

Duff said two of His Majesty’s armed schooners, one sta­tioned on the “banks” and the other on the north east coast of the prov­ince were wrecked, but for­tu­nately only two peo­ple be­long­ing to the crews of these ves­sels were lost. He es­ti­mated the dam­ages “can­not be less than thirty thou­sand pounds.”

Ruff­man said the 1775 storm had what’s called a “trapped fetch,” with two types of wind — a cir­cu­lar ve­loc­ity of the storm it­self and then a for­ward ve­loc­ity of the storm mov­ing across the sur­face of the earth.

“When you’re on the right hand side of the storm, the cir­cu­lar ve­loc­ity and the for­ward ve­loc­ity add to­gether and that’s what give you the very se­ri­ous winds and the very large storm surge,” Ruff­man said. “If you’re look­ing down the track, the right hand side has the two winds adding to­gether, the left hand side of the track has the two winds work­ing in op­po­site, but it tends to have more rain.”

A BBC Weather Cen­tre web­site says a “great num­ber” of the 4,000 peo­ple killed off New­found­land in Septem­ber 1775 were sea­men from Bri­tain and Ire­land.

“The most haunt­ing ac­count we get from this storm is when it struck Con­cep­tion Bay. Vast num­bers of fish­ing boats were in the bay as the squid catch was late that sum­mer, but the men were obliv­i­ous to the grow­ing winds and the sud­den ap­proach of the storm. The sea is said to have risen 20 feet higher than usual, putting the vast quan­ti­ties of boats in the bay at great risk. The boats re­ally had lit­tle chance against this sever­ity of weather at sea, and all but one are said to have met their deaths — a to­tal of 300 men,” the ac­count on the BBC site reads.

“Af­ter this ap­palling weather sys­tem had moved on and died down, the beaches were lit­tered with the corpses of the dead sailors, and it has been said that for many years af­ter­wards bones were still be­ing washed ashore.”

Author, sto­ry­teller and Tele­gram colum­nist Dale Jarvis ref­er­ences this in his book, “Haunted Shores.”

Jarvis said “scores of boats were hurled to their doom on North­ern Bay Sands” and when the winds and rains abated, “the beach was found to be lit­tered, full of dead bod­ies.”

Lo­cal set­tlers were said to have buried the wa­ter-logged corpses of the ill-fated men in a mass grave on a bluff over­look­ing the beach. But, for many years af­ter­wards, Jarvis said the bones of drowned men con­tin­ued to wash ashore at North­ern Bay Sands as a grue­some re­minder of the In­de­pen­dence Hur­ri­cane.

Many res­i­dents claimed they could hear the cries of the drown­ing men, which be­came known as “the hol­lies.”

The word “ holly” has even made its way into the Dic­tio­nary of New­found­land English, de­not­ing the cries of dead fish­er­men heard on stormy nights.

Ruff­man said there are also sto­ries in New­found­land folk­lore about the only sur­vivor at sea in the 1775 storm be­ing a young boy who sailors tied to a mast of a ship, who was adopted by an Ir­ish­man in North­ern Bay.

New­found­land is used to win­ter storms and be­ing on the re­ceiv­ing end for the tail end of hur­ri­canes pass­ing through in the fall, but Ruff­man said, “I think what hap­pened in 1775 was ob­vi­ously very, very ex­cep­tional and still is not fully un­der­stood.”

While peo­ple to­day have the ben­e­fit of weather fore­casts and storm warn­ings, Ruff­man said the vic­tims of the 1775 hur­ri­cane seemed to be com­pletely caught off guard.

Ruff­man said his re­search hasn’t been able to an­swer some ques­tions about the 1775 storm, such as whether it came on the east or west side of Ber­muda be­fore ar­riv­ing com­pletely unan­nounced in Pla­cen­tia Bay, StPierre-Miquelon and up through Con­cep­tion Bay. He said it’s sad that no one has con­tin­ued this his­toric re­search.

North­ern Bay res­i­dent Peter Hinchey stands on a spot said to be the lo­ca­tion of mass graves, where scores of vic­tims of the In­de­pen­dence Hur­ri­cane of 1775 were buried.

The scenic beach at North­ern Bay Sands was said to be “lit­tered, full of dead bod­ies” fol­low­ing the so-called In­de­pen­dence Hur­ri­cane of 1775.

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